Regionalism and Realism - Study Guides on General Topics

Realism and Regionalism 1865–1914 - Gary Scharnhorst and Thomas Quirk 2010

Regionalism and Realism
Study Guides on General Topics

The student of this period in American literary history will learn soon enough that there are a great many “ism” words used in connection with it—Regionalism, Naturalism, Realism, veritism, provincialism, Impressionism, and the like. One should not conclude, however, that the writing produced under these labels came from a stable and agreed-upon theory or doctrine. To the contrary, these forms of writing evolved from a loosely organized set of conventions, practices, and assumptions. Nevertheless, it is useful to have some sort of working definitions for the terms in order to recognize the purposes of the author and significance of the movement as a whole.


At one point, “Regionalism” and “local color” were used more or less interchangeably; Hamlin Garland used the word “provincialism” to describe the same literary manner. However, more recently the phrase “local color” has been avoided by some because it seemed to imply an inferior literary mode, or because critics have made distinctions between the terms. Some have argued that Regionalist writing depicts characters with greater psychological depth and with greater sympathy than does local-color writing, which is often comic, racy, even to the point of burlesque. More broadly, one may say, as a test more than a definition, that if a given text could not have happened in any other locale, or least not in the same way, then that is a specimen of Regionalist or local-color writing. In other words, there is something distinctive about it—the manners, dialects, legends, inborn attitudes of mind, and so forth are firmly rooted in place. The New England mind-set is qualitatively different from that of the South, and both are different from the slangy communities of miners in the West, who were apt to be from all over the country. As noted in the “Historical and Social Contexts” essay in this volume, there developed a great curiosity about other regions of the country after the Civil War, and thereby a market for this kind of fiction developed. It is true that there were antebellum antecedents for local-color writing, particularly in the humorous writing of the Old Southwest (Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee), but the full flowering of the movement came later, especially in the 1890s. Women writers were particularly accomplished in this literary school.

As is to be expected, setting figures prominently in Regionalist writings, at times functioning as a character, or at least a dominant force in the tale. Region-alist settings are often pastoral, though not always idyllic. In Bret Harte’s “The Luck of Roaring Camp” the baby seems to commune with nature, and a flood, not human choices, determines final events; in George Washington Cable’s “Belles Desmoiselles Plantation,” it is a breached levee that transforms the action; and in Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron,” the child Sylvy seems to get encouragement from the natural surroundings as she ascends a tall pine tree in search of the heron. One can see from these few examples that Regionalists were not reluctant to mingle vivid realistic details with romantic elements. This is true as well in such stories as Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s “The Goodness of St. Rocque,” where Creole magic plays a role, or Charles Chesnutt’s “Po’ Sandy” and Tennessee writer Mary Noailles Murfree’s “The ‘Harnt’ that Walks Chilhowee,” where supposed ghosts have a part.

Regionalism often renders characters as types representative of the locale rather than highly individualized people, though there are important exceptions to this generalization, as with Mary Wilkins Freeman’s fiercely independent women who tend to defy established tradition. Some Regionalist stories are written as first-person narratives. In these instances, the student has to remember that the vernacular narrator is usually part of the region itself. Third-person narratives tend to establish a distance between the author and the characters or the place, and the student will need to discern whether that distance is ironic or sympathetic. Thematically, Regionalist stories are often regarded as nostalgic, their authors mindful of the great social changes occurring and a bit wistful about the passing of rural and communal values. However, more recently literary historians have tended to see Regionalist authors as participating in the unification of a so-called national identity after the rupture brought about by the Civil War.


Regionalism is no longer regarded as the poor cousin of Realism. Nevertheless, there are differences between the two genres worth pointing out. American Realism may be understood as both a reaction against the idealizations and sentimentality of the Romantic era and as a positive literary program, with its own set of premises and its own social ambitions. Broadly speaking there are at least four ways to understand what Realist writing is. First, Realism assumes that sentimentalism and idealism are based on a philosophical idea that “reality” transcends human experience as it is ordinarily lived, and the Realist rejects this notion, maintaining instead that the real is a social, not a spiritual, phenomenon and that it is available to human beings through shared experience. Second, Realists generally believe that individuals are capable of making free moral choices, and that if their minds are not clouded by stereotypical or idealized biases (what Huckleberry Finn would call “tears and flapdoodle”), they are apt to make proper choices that benefit themselves and the world at large. Third, one may perhaps discern and define Realist works by the subject matter—common characters living lives and encountering difficulties that average readers recognize and can identify with. In other words, Realism is democratic in its focus and addresses readers as fully capable of judging and understanding literary works without the aid of lofty critical postulates. And, fourth, Realism may be understood as a literary manner, as distinct from subject matter. In other words, Realists try to represent life in recognizable ways: the characters speak a colloquial discourse and act according to comprehensible motives, the author tries to be nonintrusive in order to permit the reader to evaluate the plausibility and effectiveness of representation, and the author has a greater concern for character than action and attempts to project the commonly understood life of the times. These are generalizations, of course, and there is a great deal of slippage involved when the student grapples with individual texts.

The Realist writer tends not to confine subject matter to the local but to bring characters of varying backgrounds (in terms of race, gender, class, education, or geography) into close contact. This is true of Henry James, who often has an American character confront the burden of the past by visiting Europe and being tested by an older and more conservative environment. It is also true of Edith Wharton, who moved her heroine in The House of Mirth (1905) through the social economic strata of New York City, as does Stephen Crane in a very different way when he inspects the life of the poor in the flophouses or the Bowery, or Harold Frederic in The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896) when he has a Methodist minister’s faith tested by what he regards as an exotic Catholic woman on the one hand and a godless scientist on the other. One could give many more examples, but the point to be made is that Realist writers often regarded their texts as a pragmatic testing of character with this sort of question in mind: What would such and such a character, with a certain temperament and background, do under given circumstances?


  • 1. Since Realism and Regionalism are related movements, the distinctions between them tend to blur. Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Kate Chopin’s The Awakening may be read either as Realist or Regional-ist works, depending on what aspects of the novel are foregrounded. How might a certain work be read and understood in different ways? Is this a problem of analysis or an enhancement and enlargement of the meaning of the work?
  • 2. Regionalist writing of the late nineteenth century was largely dominated by women writers. Why should this be the case?
  • 3. Realism is generally considered a “democratic” movement. William Dean Howells said the “true standard of the arts” is within every man and woman’s power. How is reading and understanding literary texts different when one disregards the authority of critics and reviewers? Are the requirements placed upon the reader more difficult in some ways?
  • 4. Regionalist and Realist writing often uses regional dialects, many of which have changed or passed away by this time. How can the contemporary reader learn to appreciate dialect in literature?
  • 5. One of the aims of Regionalist and Realist writers was to overturn stereotypes, whether they be stereotypes concerning race, gender, class, or region. Does this aspect of the literary works constitute a form of social satire?


Students should not overlook a generally available and accessible resource—the anthology. The introductions and headnotes to individual works are pertinent and often insightful. Among those anthologies worth examining are:

Primary Works

Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse, eds., American Women Regionalists, 1850— 1910 (New York: Norton, 1992).

James Nagel and Tom Quirk, eds., The Portable American Realism Reader (New York: Penguin, 1997).

Donald Pizer, ed., Documents of American Realism and Naturalism (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1998).

Composed of three sections—The Critical Debate, 1874-1950; The Early Modern Period, 1915-1950; and Modern Academic Criticism, 1951-1995. It contains a healthy selection of critical statements by the practitioners of Realism, including Howells and Hamlin Garland, as well as more-recent essays or excerpts of critical commentary.

Claude M. Simpson, ed., The Local Colorists: American Short Stories 1857—1900 (New York: Harper, 1960).

Willard Thorp, ed., Great Short Works of American Realism (New York: Harper & Row, 1968).


Edwin H. Cady, The Light of Common Day: Realism in American Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971).

Cady argues that Realism cultivates a certain “common vision” in readers and that successful Realist works dramatize the relation between ordinary experience and art.

Josephine Donovan, New England Local Color Literature: A Woman’s Tradition (New York: Ungar, 1983).

Posits a distinctly female literary tradition among New England Regionalists, one that existed apart from and opposed to the male-dominated world and that represented strong and independent women characters.

Harold H. Kolb Jr., The Illusion of Life: American Realism as a Literary Form (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1969).

Begins with chapters defining American Realism in lucid and convincing ways, followed by chapters on individual writers. Kolb’s book emphasizes Realism as a literary manner, and his treatment of the rejection of omniscient narration in favor of a restricted narrative consciousness in Henry James, Mark Twain, and William Dean Howells is instructive.

Literary Movements <> [accessed 20 August 2009].

A particularly valuable website created and maintained by Donna Campbell. In addition to time lines, profiles of individual authors, and literary movements, this site provides useful links to other reliable sites, including the Society for the Study of American Women Writers.

David E. Shi, Facing Facts: Realism in American Thought and Culture, 1850—1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

A solid and highly readable cultural and social history of the period. Of particular value is his placement of Realist art, architecture, and literature together in a cultural context.

Kenneth Warren, Black and White Strangers: Race and American Literary Realism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

Demonstrates the centrality of race in late-nineteenth-century American Realism and puts writers not usually associated with one another in critical conversation.


George Washington Cable (1844-1925)

Born in New Orleans. Cable’s parents freed their slaves long before the Civil War, and though he served in the Confederate army, he wrote passionately for racial equality, particularly in The Negro Question (1890). His first collection, Old Creole Days (1879), established him as a Southern Regionalist writer; his Realist novel The Grandissmes (1880) is considered his masterwork. He was known for local-color Realism combined with keen psychological insight and a willingness to confront social issues of the day.

Harold Frederic (1856-1898)

Born in upstate New York. Frederic was an editor for a pair of upstate New York newspapers before becoming the London correspondent for The New York Times in 1884. He wrote his fiction mostly in England; his work ranges from historical romances to satirical portraits of English society to Realist novels and stories. After a visit to Russia, Frederic wrote The New Exodus (1892) condemning antiSemitism. Marsena and Other Stories (1894) comprises fiction about the Civil War. His best-known work is the novel The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896).

Mary Noailles Murfree (1850-1922)

Born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. After a childhood illness left her lame, Murfree turned to writing. The family’s summers were spent in the Cumberland Mountains, where she became fascinated with the Tennessee mountain people she wrote about in local-color stories. She published more than ten volumes of stories, including Down the Ravine (1885) and The Mystery of the Witch-Face Mountain (1895), and several novels. She blended lyrical and somewhat romantic description with realistic Appalachian dialect and an eye for detail.

—Tom Quirk